Abstract:Psalm 90 tells us that our lives are ever so brief and it also tells us why. It is the result of God’s just judgment on us. In light of these realities we are instructed, somewhat paradoxically, both to “number our days” and “be glad all our days.” How is this possible? Ultimately Psalm 90 points us to the God who out of his “steadfast love” has done something for his people that reverses the judgment and enables us to live with an abiding, in fact an eternal, joy.
Psalm 90 is ancient wisdom, but it is the kind of ancient wisdom that is timeless.1 It is the only psalm written by Moses, at least as far as we know, so it predates most of the psalms by several centuries. It is, however, not one bit less relevant today than it was when Moses first wrote its words.
Moses begins his psalm talking to God about what he is like. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (v. 1). As soon as we read or hear those words we are immediately drawn to that idea of God being our “dwelling place.” That speaks of security and rest and refuge and it sounds so comforting and attractive, especially if our circumstances are currently challenging. And it’s true. God is the dwelling place of his people. We live in him and the Bible is very eager for us to know that. But, for Moses speaking here, that is almost a given. What he is stressing is not the “dwelling place” part but the “in all generations” part. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”
Moses is not marveling here that God is our dwelling place. Certainly he loves that truth, as should we. Here he is marveling at God’s unchangeableness, his eternal unchangeableness. That becomes clear in verse two: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”
It is very important that we correctly identify and not miss that emphasis. But it’s also important that we see Moses’s purpose because even though Moses is stressing the eternal unchangeableness of God his purpose is actually to contrast that with our mortality, and so to confront us with our mortality. Notice the argument and emphasis of verses 1–3: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’” It is our mortality he is stressing. Then, in verses 4–6, Moses proceeds to unpack that point, which is his main point, at least in these opening verses.
Consider verse four: “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” What’s the point there? Moses is saying that even if we were to live a thousand years that would be just like a day in God’s sight. In fact it would be less than that. It’s like “a watch in the night,” a brief four-hour span. Even if we lived a thousand years that would be next to nothing to God. And the fact is we don’t live anywhere near a thousand years. This very psalm reminds us that “the years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty” (v. 10).
What is the point of verses 3–4? Unlike God, we are not everlasting. We are mortal and our lives are very brief. Verses 5 and 6 drive this point home: “You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” What is Moses saying? Life is really short.
The Bible is not sparing in its pressing of this point. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas 4:14). “Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath” (Ps 39:5). “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle” (Job 7:6). “My days are swifter than a runner; they flee away” (Job 9:25). “[My days are] like an eagle swooping on the prey” (Job 9:26). “You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream” (Ps 90:5). The point is clear, and we feel it! And we feel it all the more as time passes.
I am presently fifty-seven years old. In three brief years I will be sixty. That doesn’t bother me much at all. But what can throw me a bit is the fact that in just thirteen years I’ll be seventy. That’s the age that is specifically named in verse 10! When I was twenty it was unfathomable to me that I would ever be seventy. I knew it as a fact but it really didn’t register in my psyche at all. I couldn’t imagine it. In truth, it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t imagine it. I wasn’t even trying to imagine it. I wasn’t even thinking about imagining it. Now I’m fifty-seven and I’m thinking about it.
Bring the point home to yourself. If you are in your fifties or sixties or seventies you are probably already tracking with me. But let’s say you are in your forties, or thirties, or twenties. This psalm is saying it is not too soon to come to terms with the brevity of your life.
I learned in my church history classes that certain medieval scholars would place a human skull on a shelf where it could be regularly seen as they studied, as a vivid reminder of their mortality and the brevity of their lives. It was a regular practice in our own society, until seventy or eighty years ago, for a church to have a graveyard adjacent to the church building, not just as a matter of convenience but as a statement and so that every Sunday there would be a regular reminder of this truth from God’s Word.
God’s Word is very clear. Life is short and we will die. And that raises a burning question in the human heart, present there whether fully articulated or not. Why? Why do I have to die? And why so soon? Why is life so short?
Verses 7–11 provide the uncomfortable answer to that question. “For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” These verses are not easy to understand and once we understand them they are not easy to accept.
When verse 7 says “we are brought to an end by your anger” it is not talking about God’s occasional anger directed toward us. That is talking about a decision, a judgment God made in his righteousness, the result of which is our mortality and the brevity of our lives. There was a clue to this back in verse 3: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return O children of man.’” That should remind us of something God said back in Genesis chapter three. In Psalm 90 Moses is very clearly alluding to Genesis 3 (which he wrote by the way). When he writes these verses in Psalm 90 he has in mind the curse, that righteous judgment that God made on Adam and Eve (and their progeny) for the sin they committed in Eden. (We hear echoes of Genesis 3 in verse 10 as well.) That’s why there is this reference to our sin in verse 8: “You have set our iniquities before you.”
Do you see how that explains verses 7 and 9? “We are brought to an end by your anger.” “All our days pass away under your wrath.” Our mortality and the shortness of our lives is a direct result of God’s judgment in consequence of man’s sin.
And it also explains the question of verse 11: “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” In other words, who thinks about this? Who makes this connection? People don’t typically think of the relationship between their mortality, their sin, and God’s judgment. I’ve never had an unbeliever come up to me and say, “I’m experiencing the wrath of God on my life today as my life hastens to its end.” Yet that is exactly what is happening. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:18). And the main way God's wrath shows up is in our mortality and the brevity of our lives. That is the main, and searing, point of the first eleven verses of this Psalm.
However, all is not lost. Moses says in verse 12: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” The first part of that verse is simply reiterating the point Moses has already made. “Teach us to number our days.” Teach us to recognize that our days are, in fact, numbered. That’s the main truth Moses was teaching in verses 1–11 and here at the start of verse twelve he’s simply asking God to help us get that truth.
But even in that restatement Moses is beginning to suggest what the rest of verse 12 says explicitly. “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Life is short and apparently everything is at stake in this short life so God’s Word is calling us to be wise. And the big question is, “How?” How does that happen? How does living wisely come about? The answer is right there in verse fourteen. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”
The only true wisdom is God’s wisdom and living wisely can happen by only one means and that is being “satisfied” with God’s steadfast love.
But we need to back up for just a moment. Right at verse 13 something turns in this psalm. While Moses is very aware of the situation we live in under God’s judgment he also knows that’s not the end of the story. There is something in him, something very strong in him, that cries out in verse thirteen: “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” Translation? “Do something God! Don’t leave us in this situation! Have mercy on us!”
And he just continues in that vein. The entire rest of the psalm is a prayer of Moses pleading with God. You could take those words “O Lord” from verse 13 and distribute them all the way down to each verse. “O Lord, satisfy us!” (v. 14). “O Lord, make us glad!” (v. 15). “O Lord, let your work be shown to us!” (v. 16). “O Lord, let your favor be on us!” (v. 17). O Lord, do something to save us!
And this is not just some desperate prayer in the dark for Moses. He knows what he’s asking for. He knows what he both wants and needs the Lord to do. It is summarized powerfully there in verse 14. In fact, Psalm 90:14 is one of the great summarizing verses of the Bible. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” That’s what is needed. And the key thing there is in that little two-word phrase “steadfast love.”
That phrase speaks of God’s eternal and unbreakable commitment to love his people. It speaks of his eternal and absolutely reliable love. Sometimes it is spoken of as his covenant love but the key idea is the love that flows out of his character, out of his own heart.
Despite the reality of his judgment, there is still this commitment to love and we can see how critical this is to the thought of verse fourteen: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” We can feel the weight of that, especially after having heard what verses 1–11 have said about our days.
See, God’s steadfast love is not just critical to the thought of verse 14. It’s critical to our existence. It reverses everything! We’ve been wrecked, completely devastated by our sin and God’s righteous judgment on it. We live all our days under that judgment with the brevity of our lives always right there in front of our faces, whether we think about it or not. It’s dismaying. So we cry out, “O Lord, have pity! Rescue us! Bring us out of the hopelessness of all that! Show some favor to us! Instead of dismaying us, satisfy us! Bring us to a place of wholeness!” And we know what will do that. At least Moses knows.
It is the steadfast love of the Lord for his people. It is the demonstration of, the expression of God’s deep-hearted commitment to love his people. It’s his steadfast love and it’s entirely of his own initiative.
I can’t write those words without thinking of Romans 5:6–8: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That is the only thing that will cause a people who have been so devastated by sin and God’s judgment to be rescued and, therefore, to be able to rejoice and, in fact, be glad, all our days! If God doesn’t show his steadfast love for us we’re still in verses 7 and 9—still dismayed by God’s anger, passing our days under his wrath with no hope. If God doesn’t show us his steadfast love we’re stuck in verse 10, seventy or eighty short years of life with the terrifying prospect of eternity separated from God to follow.
But now, because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” anyone who “believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In this we can rejoice and be very glad all our days!
And instead of not giving any thought regarding these things, as we saw in verse 11, we, as steadfast-love-rescued and steadfast-love-satisfied people, can desire God’s saving work to be made much of before God’s people and their children (v. 16). And in the end, it is that demonstration of steadfast love that is the ground we stand on to say, with Moses, whether with reference to our lives, our ministries, or our participation in the larger work of God in the world, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”